Located in the southwest corner of Texas in the Chihuahuan Desert lies a place unlike any other. Big Bend National Park is not only the most remote national parks in the lower 48 states, it is a place teeming with life. You may not realize it at first glance across the vast openness of the desert floor, or in the tall canyons that were carved out over centuries of water flowing through the Rio Grande.
Big Bend is extremely remote. The closest city, El Paso, is located 4 1/2 hours away from the park. Or, to the east, you have San Antonio at nearly 6 hours away by car. It is on the way to…well, nowhere. You have to make it a point to go out of your way to visit this wonder.
Getting to Big Bend
On our road trip from New Hampshire to Arizona we wanted to take the southern route, to avoid rough winter weather. Ultimately that didn’t matter since we happened to be in Austin for a rare winter storm that dumped about 6 inches on us. We had a late start getting out of Austin because of the snow, so we were only able to make it to Fort Stockton for the night.
When we arrive to our destination at a late hour, we always consider the option of boondocking. Boondocking is dry camping, which means there are no RV hookups (water/electricity/sewer). Boonocking can be in a picturesque location on BLM land, or it can be in an urban Walmart parking lot. All Walmarts have different rules on if people are allowed to boondock, so it’s best to call ahead and ask or check out the AllStays app. Fortunately, the Walmart in Fort Stockton had a big parking lot and is very friendly with allowing RVers and semi-trucks to spend the night.
There are 2 entrances to Big Bend National Park. You can go through Persimmon Gap visitor center, 40 miles past the small town of Marathon. Or, in the western side of the park, you can enter through Maverick Junction, which is past the ghost town of Terlingua. To get from one end of Big Bend National Park to the other can take a couple hours, so be mindful of where you are entering and where you plan to camp.
Where to Stay
We initially had planned on boondocking inside the park. It’s not common that national parks will allow boondocking, but in Big Bend you can pay a $12 fee for a back country permit and camp for up to 14 nights. We were going to boondock at Government Springs, which is pretty central in the park. However, after talking with the park ranger at the entrance we opted to stay at the Rio Grande Village RV Campground. It essentially was just a big parking lot with RV hookups, but it was level and in a warmer location in the park. The website says it is $33/night, but I KNOW we didn’t pay that. We may have gotten half off pricing since Jake is a disabled veteran. There is cheaper (and no RV hookup) camping at the Rio Grande Village campground which is right down the road.
There aren’t many hotels in the region, but there are a few.
–> Stay in the park at the Chisos Mountains Lodge
–> View all campgrounds in the park
Is it worth visiting Big Bend National Park?
With all the hassle it takes getting there, and the lack of places to stay, is it worth even visiting Big Bend National Park? If you are visiting during the cooler time of the year the answer is so simple: ABSOLUTELY. During the summer months, when temperatures can get to over 100F, I would probably pass. But in winter you can enjoy daytime temperatures in the 60s and a relatively empty park.
Not only is there a lot to see in the park, so much of the foliage and animals are unique to that area only. I use to think that a desert was a desert. While traveling through the southwest and Texas though, just the differences between the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts are astonishing.
You can find roadrunners throughout the southwest and Mexico. I guarantee you will see no less than a dozen per day on your visit to Big Bend National Park! These amazing birds can zip across the road at up to 20mph!
One of the most special moments in the park was when we happened upon some deer. We didn’t know until later that the Chisos Mountains, located inside Big Bend National Park, are the only place you can find Carmen deer. What is shocking about these deer is their tiny stature! They are possible the smallest deer in the mainland United States. We saw a baby deer, a doe and a little buck with a huge rack.
If you are into birdwatching, this is the place for you. You can find up to 450 different types of migratory birds inside the park. We enjoyed our walk along the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail. We saw a variety of birds here and it was such a sharp contrast to the desert scenery we found elsewhere.
Javalinas [pronounced hav-uh-lee-nuhs] can also be found in the park. Javalinas look like wild pigs, but the are a type of peccary and do not belong to the pig family. The southwest is the only place in the United States where javalinas are native to. We saw a band (group) of javalinas just before entering the park, but did not see any inside the park unfortunately.
I never cared much about botany until recently. If I’m being honest, it was while watching the show Outlander when I started to get an appreciation for how important and interesting plants can be. That interest exploded while we were in the desert. There is so much life happening in the desert and it is far from barren or boring. In Big Bend you will find a variety of cacti and desert succulents, including; prickly pears, agave lechuguilla and ocotillo. Many of the plants are prickly, so pay close attention.
It took us over 2 hours to drive from one end of Big Bend National Park to the other, and we didn’t nearly see it all. What we saw though, was breathtaking! There were so many times that we pulled off to the side of the road to snap pictures, and other times where we just stopped right on the road to get a quick photo. As we drove, the scenery changed from desert to snowy mountain ranges, to the deep canyons of the Rio Grande River. I can’t think of another National Park I’ve been to that has so many different ecosystems as Big Bend.
It may take awhile to get to this secluded National Park, but once you arrive you may feel like you have the entire park to yourself! Because of the pleasant December temperatures and schools winter break, I worried that we may be visiting the park during a busy time. However, there was very little traffic on the roads, parking was never an issue and we easily found a campsite without reservations.
If you enjoy getting outdoors and hitting the trail, there is plenty to explore in Big Bend. We only had 2 days, so we didn’t tackle any of the difficult trails. We hiked a few short trails, trying to see as many different parts of the park as possible.
Here are some of the top hikes in Big Bend National Park. We rated the hikes we personally did. The milage listed below is round trip and is based on what is listed on the National Park Service website, it may be a little different then what AllTrails says.
Window View Trail (0.3 mile) 5/5 –> Great views of ‘The Window,’ may see Carmen deer
Rio Grande Village Nature Trail 4/5 (0.75 miles) –> Great for bird watching, nice sunset views
Hot Springs Historic Trail (1 mile) –> Soak in hot springs (can flood, check with ranger first)
Boquillas Canyon Trail (1.4 miles) 4/5 –> Great views of the Rio Grande, walk along the river bank, Mexico is just a few feet away
Santa Elena Canyon Trail (1.7 miles) 3.5/5 –> Great views of Santa Elena Canyon (popular rafting spot)
Lost Mine Trail (4.8 miles)–> The hike is through the forest in the Chisos Mountains with mountain views into Mexico
Window Trail (5.6 miles) –> Hike down to the iconic window, if you time it right you can see the sunset directly in the window
Emory Peak Trail (10.5 miles)–> Strenuous hike to the tallest point in Big Bend, with panoramic views *can do as any overnight hike with a permit
As you can see, there is plenty to do and see in this incredible part of Texas. Big Bend National Park is worth visiting at least once in your lifetime. If you give this park a chance I know it will surpass all your expectations and leave you breathless.
Have you been to Big Bend National Park before? If not, would you go? Let me know in the comment section below!